Taking The Next Step: Can Florida Gymnastics Win The NCAA Title?

While we can bask in the glory of the Florida lacrosse team's monumental victory over Northwestern last night, the weekend means we must now turn our attention to another of our women's Gators squads. This one has already established itself as a national powerhouse, and has been standing on the cusp of greatness and flirting with a national title for way too long.  Is this the year the Gators gymnastics team breaks through and becomes only the 5th school to win a NCAA gymnastics title? We'll find out the answer to that question tonight and tomorrow night.

After being ranked No. 1 for the entire season, the Gators gymnastics team had a disappointing second place showing two weeks ago in the North Central Regional in Denver, where they finished behind SEC foe Arkansas. Based on their performance in Denver, the Gators enter this weekend's NCAA Championships as the No. 5 seed. But all previous scores and performances are erased as the top two teams from each Regional (a total of 12 teams) advance to the NCAA Championships this weekend, meaning the Gators are still in contention.  Other than determining which semifinal session teams will compete in, the seedings are meaningless at this point.

All eyes turn to Cleveland (don't they always?), as Kent State serves as host school for this year's NCAA Championships.  The Gators will compete in this evening's second session at 6pm, against top seeded and SEC Champion Alabama, No. 4 Oregon State, No. 8 Utah, #9 Nebraska and #12 Kent State. The top three scoring teams from the session will advance, along with the top three from today's early session (UCLA, Oklahoma, Michigan, UGA, Arkansas and Illinois) to compete in tomorrow's Super Six to determine the 2011 National Champions.

Only UCLA (six titles, including 2010), Utah (nine), UGA (10) and Alabama (four) have worn the gymnastics crown in the 29 years since 1982 when the NCAA sanctioned the sport. But this year is perhaps the most wide open competition ever. According to Amy Farnum of, half of the 12 teams have a legitimate shot at taking home the crown.

The Gators are certainly one of those teams. UF is led by two underclass(wo)men, sophomore Ashanee Dickerson and freshman Alaina Johnson, the team's best all-around gymnasts. Senior Maranda Smith will try to provide some senior leadership as she will likely compete in the vault competition.

The Gators' highest score this season, 197.725, came in Athens, Georgia in a February victory over UGA . The Gators will need to score closer to that mark, as opposed to the 196.425 they tallied in Denver, if they hope to earn their first national title. Coach Rhonda Faehn says her team is ready to lay it all on the line this weekend and leave with no regrets. (Faehn received some great news earlier this week when 2009 World All-Around Champion Bridget Sloan signed a letter of intent to compete for the Gators in 2012 after her goal of competing for the U.S. Olympic team in London.

Credit Jeremy Foley again, as Faehn is one of the top coaches in college gymnastics right now. Some UGA fans even have delusions of hiring her away, as their recent dynasty is slipping away following the retirement of Suzanne Yoculan. With the talent coming in and the youth of its top competitors, the future is amazingly bright for the Gators gymnastics squad. A national title will come eventually. But if it's all the same, let's just go ahead and take the prize this season and begin a new gymnastics dynasty.

UPDATE: The early session is in the books. Oklahoma led all teams with a 196.775 and will advance to the Super Six, along with Michigan and UCLA. UGA and Arkansas tied for fourth and are both out.

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